Islam and Islamophobia

Before I close up shop for Shabbat, I want to say a few words about Islam and religious prejudice.

Islamist violence is a reality; anti-Muslim prejudice is also a reality. Both exist; both are wrong. Neither one justifies the other. The existence of islamophobia is not a reason to excuse, avoid, minimize, or ignore the fact that a wealthy and well-organized mafia has used the Muslim faith as a garrison from which to commit unspeakable crimes against humanity. And recognizing this fact is not a justification to indulge one's own base prejudices against a billion human beings.

There are certain well-known websites that I won't link on my sidebar because they foster a climate of islamophobic religious hate. I will not assent to such speech in my social life, nor will I tolerate it in my comments section.

A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with some acquaintances in the local community. In the course of conversation, I mentioned my studies with Imam Toure and my visits to the local mosques. I quickly found myself being shouted down by two of the other people present. I won't bore you with the details of that conversation - which eventually ended on a more civil, though still strained, note - but I do want to share a few thoughts that followed from it.

A religion is as good or as bad as its followers choose to make it. The Muslims I have met have been wonderful, warm, caring people. Imam Toure is one of the finest spiritual leaders I've ever met. People like him need to be supported and encouraged, not ignored and degraded.

I lived in a Muslim country - Turkey - for two years, around the mid-1980's when I was stationed in Izmir with the Air Force. We were living in the city itself, not on a separate base, and it was a great opportunity to meet people and learn a little about the culture and the language. (Evet, ben bir az tu"rkc,e konus,iyorum!) I was completely open about being Jewish, and never experienced hostility from the Muslim Turks. I'm not claiming anti-Semitism doesn't exist there, but I am saying I met a lot of great people. When the Neveh Shalom synagogue in Istanbul was attacked, my Turkish friends extended their sympathies and expressed what was clearly deeply felt outrage. A number of Turks also expressed disgust with their government's atrocities against the Kurdish people.

I'm not going to try to judge an entire religion by what is written in a single sacred text. The language of faith is not like ordinary language. You can find passages in any religious scripture which, when read alone, may seem shocking or horrifying, and you can find people who are only too happy to treat the most repugnant interpretation as a divine commandment. But there are also those who see another dimension in the traditional teachings, and to wrong these people is to wrong all religion, and human nature itself. Ali Fadhil wrote: 'I think that the governments can not create criminals or saints, but a wise one makes it easier for the good ones to use their free will as it makes it harder for the bad ones to use theirs. And the opposite applies for the bad government; it just acts as a catalyst to the potentialities within each human soul.' I think this is also true of religion. There is no doubt that people who are raised in an environment calculated to foster hate will themselves be more predisposed to hateful attitudes and behavior. People who are systematically schooled in brutality often absorb the lesson. But this does not apply to the entire Muslim world. I don't want to get too deep into this, but I will say that cherry-picking another religion's scriptures to validate your own prejudices is a pointless, stupid exercise which proves nothing.

Who are the "real" Muslims? One of my interlocutors at the dinner gathering, when I mentioned my experience in Turkey, waved the point away saying, "Well, Turkey is more moderate." Well, yes - and isn't that exactly the point? But if they're "moderate" then, according to a certain mindset, they don't exist - or they're not "real Muslims". And so we come to the very kernel, the very core algorithm, of prejudice. Reader Mark of Conservapuppies had some very insightful comments on this in an earlier thread. If you're determined to stigmatize a group in a certain way, you can just exclude any people who don't fit your stereotype by saying they're not "real" whatever.

What about the Iraqis who are risking their lives to help the Coalition forces defeat fascism in their country? The Belmont Club says it well: 'Personally I find it difficult to conceive of an enmity with Muslims in general when it is Muslims doing the most dying on the side of freedom in Iraq. Surely that is proof that the basic faultline is nothing so slender as the boundary between Sunni and Shi'ite; Muslim and Jew; atheist or Christian, but something wider still.'

So who are the real Muslims? Ultimately that's for the Islamic world to decide. Some people raised in the Muslim tradition have already declared, like Ali Sina that they want no part of it; that is their choice and their right. But it is not the only choice: Muslim dissidents like Irshad Manji prefer to work within the context of the faith - and perhaps it is they who will inspire more people.

To have faith in the ability of human beings to be human is not - as some people would condescendingly suggest - "naive". As I left the dinner gathering, one of the other guests - who had been shouting at me across the table an hour earlier - wished me a good night, and admonished me to "be careful". (Thanks, pal. I'll be a little more careful who I eat dinner with from now on.)

No, it is simple realism to affirm that people everywhere are not too different from one another on a basic level; and that as individuals, we run the entire spectrum. It is not a question of the name of one's faith, but of the nature of one's character. All of us are created in the image of G-d; we honor our Creator when we live up to our highest nature.